This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The Notebook recently began sharing content with Education Week, where this piece originally appeared. Temple University is one of the finalists, for an early language and literacy coaching program.
by Erik W. Robelen
The U.S. Department of Education last week identified the 23 finalists expected to receive Investing in Innovation, or "i3," grants in the second round of the high-profile competition, including the Success for All Foundation—the only repeat winner—as well as the College Board, a science museum in New York City, and five school districts.
The largest single grant is expected to go to the Old Dominion University Research Foundation, based in Norfolk, Va., which requested nearly $25 million for a "scale-up" grant aimed at providing high-need middle schoolers with increased access to challenging math courses.
In all, 587 applicants competed for a slice of nearly $150 million in this second round of the i3 program. Last year, the Education Department awarded 49 grants totaling roughly $650 million.
All the new awards are contingent on the applicants securing a private match of a portion of their grant total, ranging from 5 percent to 15 percent, depending on the type of grant requested.
Efforts to improve science, technology, engineering, and math—or STEM—education and rural schooling got a boost this round, as both were added to a short list of categories given special emphasis by the department. In fact, one-third of the nearly $150 million in i3 funding is expected to target proposals that identified STEM as an "absolute priority," according to the department.
"This round of i3 grantees is poised to have real impact in areas of critical need, including STEM education and rural communities, on projects ranging from early-childhood interventions to school turnaround models that will prepare more students for college and career," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a press release last week.
The i3 program, established with funding under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and extended by Congress earlier this year as part of the fiscal 2011 budget, seeks to find innovative and promising education strategies that also have a good record of success. The i3 program includes three types of grants: "Development" grants (worth up to $3 million this time), "validation" grants (up to $15 million), and "scale-up" grants (up to $25 million). The bigger the award, the more evidence of past success is required.
An Education Department spokeswoman said that while the agency’s final grant awards may not exactly match the requested figures, they are expected to be similar.
One key change this year was that the department added two new categories to the "absolute priority" list: promoting STEM education and improving achievement and graduation rates for rural school districts. Every applicant was required to select one of the five "absolute" priorities. In addition to STEM and rural education, the other three priorities are innovations that: support effective teachers and principals; complement the implementation of high standards and high-quality assessments; and turn around persistently low-performing schools.
Marty Strange, the policy director for the Rural School and Community Trust, based in Arlington, Va., said that, at first glance, he was pleased to see among the finalists a number of what he said appear to be "authentically rural" applications. His group issued a report early this year that was sharply critical of the first round of i3 winners for a noticeable lack of such authenticity. ("Few ‘i3’ Winners Truly ‘Rural,’ Report Says,"Education Week, Feb. 2, 2011.)
In the first round, rural education was a "competitive" priority, which meant applicants earned extra points for a rural component. In most cases this led to superficial inclusion he contends. Five of the successful applicants announced last week identified rural education as the "absolute priority."
"It certainly appears to be an improvement over the first round, and it would be hard not to be," Mr. Strange said of the new slate of grantees. "I think the shift to being an ‘absolute priority’ had a beneficial effect."
Focus on STEM
Meanwhile, STEM education was a popular topic in i3 this time. Among the 587 applicants, 28 percent selected that category as an absolute priority, more than any other category. In the end, five of those were named grantees, while another three included a strong emphasis on STEM, according to the Education Department.
"STEM is very much in the national consciousness," said Claus von Zastrow, the chief operating officer and research director for Change the Equation, a coalition of more than 110 corporate chief executive officers working to improve STEM education. "President Obama has made quite clear that it is a priority of his administration."
Mr. von Zastrow said he saw "some pretty impressive organizations" among those selected for STEM-focused grants, such as the New York Hall of Science and the National Math and Science Initiative.
The latter group, based in Dallas, requested $15 million to expand a program that aims to increase the number of students passing Advanced Placement exams in math, science, and English in order to boost student achievement and college-readiness in the STEM subjects.
Meanwhile, the New York Hall of Science, a museum in Queens, asked for $3 million to develop, implement, and evaluate a new system of technologies, called SciGames, designed to bridge formal classroom and informal playground science learning environments.
"The New York Hall of Science work on [digital] gaming in the informal space, that’s a very innovative place to be," Mr. von Zastrow said. "It represents a new paradigm for getting kids to learn."
‘A Portfolio of Solutions’
The Success for All Foundation has been selected for its second i3 grant. In 2010, it got a $50 million grant to expand the Baltimore-based organization’s model for the whole-school turnaround of struggling elementary schools. This time, it was chosen for its $3 million proposal to create and evaluate a technology-enhanced approach to early literacy.
"The idea is to use whiteboards or similar kinds of technology to help build young children’s language skills," said Robert E. Slavin, a co-founder of the Success for All Foundation and the writer of an opinion blog for Education Week’s website.
The organization was also listed as one of three "project partners" on the $25 million plan from Old Dominion University. Mr. Slavin and colleagues at Johns Hopkins University developed the math program to be used in the grant, and he said that the Success for All Foundation will play a prominent role in the new project to expand that work.
All the i3 applications were peer reviewed and given numeric ratings, according to the Education Department. In the end, the department did not simply select the 23 highest-ranking applications from the full list. It separated them into categories based on each "absolute" priority, as well as on the type of grant sought, whether a scale-up, validation, or development grant. It then ranked the applications within each category to ensure a balance of projects across the priority areas.
"One of the big objectives of i3 is to create a portfolio of solutions to a range of challenges," said James H. Shelton, the Education Department’s assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement, in a conference call with reporters.
Mr. Slavin from Success for All said that, regardless of his organization’s fortunes in the process, he believes i3 is a promising program.
"The whole i3 process is exactly what should be happening," he said, "to have research and development make a direct impact on schools at a very large scale."